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A battle between two fears: who'll win in the Vale of Glamorgan?

Stephen Bush visits the Vale of Glamorgan, which has picked the winner at every election since its creation.

The Vale of Glamorgan doesn’t look like a marginal constituency. Even Barry Island, of Gavin and Stacey fame, is dominated by the big brass door knockers and large terrace houses that, in England, would indicate steady Toryism.

In England, these would be homes bought by bankers or middle managers. But in the Vale, doors open to reveal teachers and public-sector administrators who have been hit hard by stagnant pay and anxiety over job losses. The political figure I hear most about is Michael Gove. “The government has declared war on teachers,” says Mary, who voted for Alun Cairns, the Conservative candidate, when he won in 2010. “We need to get politics out of the classroom.”

It’s small wonder that Cairns’s position doesn’t look as secure as his 4,300 majority would suggest. One Labour strategist talks about being able to “smell blood” in the canvass returns. The central party, meanwhile, is pouring resources into the seat.

But unlike in England, where the rise of Ukip hurts the Conservatives more than Labour, here it appears to be the other way round. In Wales, as one Tory insider says, “Ukip takes our activists but Labour’s voters.” Nigel Farage’s party will come a distant third but it could prevent Labour’s Chris Elmore from overhauling Cairns. One woman on the constituency’s borders says she has “been Labour all my life – and what have I got for it? Nothing. It’ll be Ukip this time.”

What the Conservatives lack in manpower they make up for in money, and the Tory message screams down from every other billboard. “The cost of Labour”, says one, an outstretched hand reaching down to take £3,000 from the unsuspecting citizens of Barry. On the road to Cardiff Airport, one of the constituency’s biggest employers, commuters get a daily dose of Conservativism with their morning drive.

That those same slogans start to come up on the doorstep is therefore little surprise. Alan, who owns a small business, tells me he blames Labour for the economic difficulties of the past five years. “Labour would take us back [to that situation].”

Karen, another teacher, says that she and her husband have “cut down on luxuries... we don’t eat out as much as we used to”. Like most homeowners on Barry Island, Karen has no backstop of capital behind her; when I ask her what worries her most, her reply is immediate: “The mortgage. What happens if one of us gets sick or [given] redundancy?” But when I ask her how she’s voting, she tells me: “I’m voting Conservative. We can’t go back to where we were five years ago.”

Voters here are caught between two fears – a fear of worse to come under the Conservatives, and a fear that the past five years have “all been for nothing”, as Alan puts it. In 2011, with the cuts beginning to bite, his business nearly went bust and he contemplated remortgaging the house to keep himself afloat. “But we’re still here, in one piece,” he smiles. “The economy’s beginning to pick up. I think we should have elections every ten years, let the government get more of a run at it.”

Labour could still win the election on the day. Elmore, who has lived on the island for a decade, is a well-liked local councillor with a strong on-the-ground campaign. Yet in some ways the Vale isn’t quite so different from the leafy Tory strongholds of southern England that it resembles. “I’ve worked hard,” Alan says. “I haven’t been given anything, I’ve never claimed anything. What are Labour doing for me?”

Under Ed Miliband, Labour no longer has a compelling response, no longer exudes what Rafael Behr, the Guardian columnist and former NS political editor, described as “the subtle cadence of reassurance that was once its passport to success”. It may be that Miliband and his party pay a heavy price for that in the Vale.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.